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Tim Steller's opinion: Kids can go back to school now, but only we can keep them there
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Tim Steller's opinion: Kids can go back to school now, but only we can keep them there

Correction: As originally published, this column mis-stated when Catalina Foothills began in-person classes. They began Oct. 26, 2020. 

Super Bowl Sunday — the day one of the biggest outcomes of the year is decided: Whether our kids will go back to school and stay.

In the Tucson area, most districts either already have in-person classes, or have set a date to resume. Only one district, the biggest, does not yet have a date.

The Tucson Unified School District governing board is scheduled to discuss a return to some form of in-person schooling at their meeting Tuesday.

I have a big investment in the outcome — my kids attend TUSD schools. And though they’ve done pretty well with remote learning, the dreariness of the online routine has worsened since the holidays.

They would do much better back in school.

But they can’t go — or at least they can’t go and stay — if we screw up on Super Bowl Sunday and other social occasions like it. We are finally in a position to know from local and international research that transmission of COVID-19 is minimal at schools as long as they take strong mitigation measures.

If everyone is masked and distanced, if heavily used surfaces are cleaned and people keep washing their hands, transmission barely happens at all in schools.

But outside of schools — that’s a different story.

Four TUSD employees died of COVID-19 in the tragic week of Jan. 25-29, superintendent Gabriel Trujillo reported in a news conference Thursday. None of them got sick from school.

This pattern of illness has been true across Pima County school settings, said Brian Eller, the Pima County Health Department official in charge of monitoring the virus at schools and working with the districts on containing outbreaks.

“The vast majority of transmission occurs in social settings or at home,” he said in an interview Friday. “So when a kid gets sick, when a staff member gets diagnosed, it’s because they’ve got it somewhere else 90-plus percent of the time.”

The last six weeks have been a time of excitement for Eller and others researching the impact of the virus at schools. On Jan. 26, scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a paper confirming the growing consensus.

“As many schools have reopened for in-person instruction in some parts of the US as well as internationally, school-related cases of COVID-19 have been reported, but there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission,” the report said.

This is also what Eller and colleagues have increasingly concluded as they collected data and traced outbreaks at schools in Pima County over the last six months.

“We’ve always had this belief that schools are safe, especially if you’re practicing strong mitigation,” Eller said.

“The big thing that has changed is we now have the actual data to show that schools are a safe place in terms of community-related transmission, and that even when we’re in advanced states of community transmission, schools that are practicing robust mitigation within their settings continue to be a space of low spread.”

School districts have embraced a variety of approaches since this school year began. Catalina Foothills district, for example, has been open for in-person schooling since Oct. 26. Amphitheater district has gone from remote-only to a hybrid of in-person and remote teaching, and back to remote.

Chicago's mayor is demanding that the city's teachers union reach agreement on COVID-19 safety protocols that would bring thousands of students back to classrooms.

Since Eller and the department began collecting data last year, they’ve found only three cases of student-to-teacher transmission.

Many teachers and school staff members have remained reticent to return to school, worried about the safety of it, while families are ready to go.

The Amphitheater district did a survey of students’ families and of employees. A majority (56% ) of the families who responded preferred to return to some form of in-person schooling. A plurality (40%) wanted to return to full-time in-person schooling, while 26% preferred a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. Twenty-six percent wanted to remain in remote learning.

The majority of staff and teachers, though (52%), preferred to remain in remote learning, while 27% preferred a hybrid system, and 19% wanted to go to full-time in-person teaching.

Lisa Millerd, an English teacher at Amphitheater High School, said her personal preference is to wait till the end of this quarter, March 15, then return to a hybrid model. Amphi is scheduled to go back to hybrid on Feb. 15.

Millerd, who is president of the Amphitheater Education Association, explained, “Students need to be in classrooms. I don’t think any of us would deny that. But we can’t control what our families are doing outside school. It’s happening outside, and that has an impact on quarantine.”

That’s one of the key aspects of returning to in-person schooling. When a teacher is exposed or becomes infected, they must go into quarantine, even if they’re feeling fine. A quarantined teacher can keep teaching if they’re doing it by computer, but not in person.

Exposures and subsequent quarantines can set off a chain reaction that leaves too few staff to cover classes.

“Some of the hardest hit ZIP codes with regard to COVID transmission are in TUSD’s attendance boundaries,” TUSD superintendent Trujillo said in an email. “When the adults contract the virus, particularly teachers, we can’t staff and supervise classrooms.”

Quarantine requirements have shortened from 14 days to a minimum of eight since the pandemic began, Eller said, but they are still a key step in containing outbreaks and must be followed.

Vaccinations hold promise, and teachers are gradually getting their first shots. But reopening shouldn’t wait for all teachers and staff to get both shots, Eller said, because conditions are safe enough in schools with strong mitigation, and it will take many weeks to get teachers their second vaccine and through their two-week post-vaccine period.

Trujillo acknowledged the county’s guidance but also said TUSD’s many losses — eight total employees and close community members since the pandemic began — have made the district cautious.

He said in an email: “The loss of so many beloved campus and classroom leaders has devastated our community and has naturally resulted in our leadership team placing more of an emphasis on successful employee vaccination as a major portion of the overall criterion we will be examining to determine a start date for a return to in-person learning.”

The biggest factor endangering teachers, school staff, students and their families is spread of the virus in the community — and that’s our responsibility.

“If you want kids in school, then the mitigation around you and your family has to be so strong,” said Dustin Williams, the Pima County superintendent of public instruction.

That starts on days like Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday.

If you want your kids in school, as I do, you can’t be crowded inside at house parties or bars, yelling at the TV. You have to keep your distance and your discipline.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter.


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Related to this story

Amphitheater schools Superintendent Todd Jaeger sent this letter Feb. 4 explaining results of a survey on returning to in-person schooling.

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